“Core” is a popular catchword in the exercise and fitness world that is often used to reference the abdominals. While the core does include the muscles of the rectus abdominis, the term actually refers to a complex series of muscles that includes your entire trunk. Along with the abdominals and the internal and external obliques, your shoulders, chest, and glutes are actually “core” muscles as well because they act as isometric (holding a contraction) and dynamic (moving) stabilizers so that force can be transferred and movement initiated. A strong core does more than help you look good on the beach, it is vitally important for all human movement and overall health, allowing you to run faster, jump higher, maintain posture, decrease injury risk, and reduce common aches and pains.
The goal of core training should be to stabilize while the limbs produce and transfer force. In natural human movements, such as running, you want your core to brace so that your arms and legs can efficiently transfer force and turn it into locomotion. Spinal flexion, extension, and compression, as in most conventional abdominal exercises such as the crunch, inhibits the ability of the limbs to do their job. Research has shown that the most effective way to build a strong core is through functional movements that place a load on the trunk, such as push-ups or deadlifts or front squats; secondary movements that involve stabilization through various ranges of motion, such as pikes; and variations of the plank.1,2,3
Power athletes, such as weightlifters or wrestlers, often have very impressive core development without doing a single crunch or devoting any of their training time to isolating the abdominals. This is because the movements involved in their sports place heavy loads on their core muscles. Research has shown that the very basic strength training movements—such as push-ups, pull-ups, deadlifts, and squats—are great for developing core strength.2 In fact, studies have found that various push-up variations are better at activating the core than traditional ab exercises, such as crunches or leg raises.4,5 Instead of delegating an entire workout to abdominals, build a stronger midsection by focusing on core bracing while completing these basic strength training movements.
A 2010 study comparing various abdominal exercises concluded that pikes (bending at the waist to form a “v” without spinal extension/flexion) resulted in significantly more upper and lower abdominal and external and internal oblique activation than any traditional abdominal exercise.2Instead of lying on that Swiss Ball to perform crunches or various twisting motions, use the ball as a tool to perform variations of pikes.
Planks are one of the foundations of a comprehensive core training program, as their sole purpose is isometric stabilization of the core musculature. With some dedication, most people can work up to completing a traditional plank for a full minute. The key to sustained progression is continuing to overload the muscles through increasingly difficult variations. Recent research has shown that variations, such as long-lever planks (where the elbows are pushed farther forward than the traditional 90-degree angle) offer significantly more core muscular activation than the traditional plank. These more advanced variations also place a greater load on the shoulders, glutes, and various muscles of the back, which are also core muscles which must stabilize to allow for efficient human movement. If you are able to complete a plank for a full minute, instead of continually increasing the length of time, try more challenging variations by raising an arm or leg, further activating your transverse abdominis with side planks, extending the levers, or even advanced modifications, such as star plank.
Push-up, pike, and plank your way to a core of steel. Bibliography
doTERRA Science blog articles are based on a variety of scientific sources. Many of the referenced studies are preliminary and further research is needed to gain greater understanding of the findings. Some articles offer multiple views on general health topics and are not the official position of doTERRA. Consult your healthcare provider before making changes to diet or exercise.